Church-state showdown in Indiana

CHURCH-STATE SHOWDOWN IN INDIANA….It’s not unusual for state legislatures, like the U.S. Congress, to start the day with an official non-denominational prayer. On the Hill, the House and Senate have chaplains to cover this, while many states invite local religious leaders to handle the invocation. Yes, this is all legal — the Supreme Court cleared the way for these prayers in 1983, ruling that a legislature could hold nonsectarian invocations, in part because they reflect “elements of the American civil religion.”

The fight over invocations in Indiana’s legislature, however, is anything but civil. For years, pastors have been brought in to lead state lawmakers in prayer at the start of their work day with increasingly evangelistic language. Matters came to a head in April when the Rev. Clarence Brown delivered an invocation that included thanks to God “for our lord and savior Jesus Christ, who died that we might have the right to come together in love.” He said he had been thinking about the separation of church and state, but decided to ignore it because “I have to do what Jesus Christ says for me to do as a witness.”

Once his prayer was complete, Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma (R) announced that Brown would “bless us with a song,” leading to an energetic rendition of “Just a Little Talk With Jesus.”

It was the tipping point. The Indiana Civil Liberties Union filed suit in the name of four people — a retired Methodist minister, two Roman Catholics, and a state lobbyist for a Quaker group — arguing that the practice of legislative invocations had crossed the line from nonsectarian civil religion to state-sponsored promotion of Christianity.

About a month ago, a federal judge agreed, ruling that the Constitution insists that “one religious denomination cannot be officially preferred over another.” Indiana’s legislative prayers represent “a clear endorsement of Christianity, sending the message to others that they are outsiders and the message to Christians that they are favored insiders.”

So, state lawmakers are prepared to be more inclusive now, right? Not so much.

[U.S. District Judge David F. Hamilton] ordered the House to avoid mentioning Christ in the formal benedictions. As the House prepares to open its 2006 session on Wednesday, a number of politicians have vowed to defy Hamilton, whom they accuse of undermining a 188-year Indiana tradition and interfering in legislative branch affairs.

Terry Goodin, a Democrat who rejects Hamilton’s order, is among at least two dozen House members who have asked to give Wednesday’s prayer. He said he would “absolutely” speak Christ’s name if given the chance.

“Really, who do you pray to? If you’re offering up a prayer, you’re praying to a deity. You don’t offer prayers to just an open space,” Goodin said. “I will give the same type of prayer that’s been given for 100 years. I won’t change my words because of someone in the judicial branch who tells me I must.”

Judge Hamilton, who is the son and grandson of Methodist ministers, said he intends “to take appropriate steps to insure compliance,” suggesting that lawmakers who ignore the ruling will likely be held in contempt of court. This could get ugly.

I’m a bit of a purist when it comes to church-state separation, but this case does raise legitimate questions about drawing the civil religion line. Opponents of the status quo believe it’s ridiculous for lawmakers to officially promote and endorse Christianity on the floor of the legislature. They’re right. Supporters of evangelistic legislative prayers believe it’s ridiculous to insist that prayers are fine so long as they’re watered down and generic in order to make everyone feel comfortable. They’re right, too.

I have a compromise solution to offer: Indiana lawmakers can pray, alone or in groups, to any god they like, and with any language they like, before and after the legislative work day begins. Lawmakers who don’t want to pray, or prefer a more inclusive, non-faith-specific prayer, can get together alone or in groups as well. The floor of the legislature would be reserved for official legislative work, while everyone, including lawmakers, could worship however they please, just not on the floor of the state capitol. There’d be no need for lawsuits, or defiance of court orders, because everyone could worship, or not, on their own time and with no restrictions or church-state questions.

What do you say, Indiana?